Boston city councilors Wednesday said they want to see structural changes at the Police Department that reduce its budget, and meaningful reform in the various police union contracts.
“I think we can make real changes here,” said Councilor Andrea Campbell during Wednesday’s council meeting, which was conducted virtually.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo mentioned that Boston police can work up to 90 hours a week, which he said is “wildly unhealthy,” for both officers and residents.
“If this was a private sector job and we had folks who were putting up that much money in overtime, you would question our business model,” he said, “so I think we have to really look at how this works.”
The city’s operating budget approved last month included a reduction of $12 million in police overtime spending — 20 percent of the department’s overtime budget. That funding is being rerouted to other programs, including $3 million to the Public Health Commission for programs to combat systemic racism. The cuts to the BPD’s overtime budget came amid vocal calls for police reform, as demonstrations against systemic racism continued both locally and nationwide.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Councilor Kenzie Bok said the police overtime line item is one of the few in the operating budget that is allowed to exceed its allotment. The overtime from the last fiscal year, which ended last week, was apparently no different, as Bok expected police OT to exceed its allotted amount for that budget by about $8 million.
She said that meant if Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration could hold the budgetary line for the current fiscal year — not exceeding the $48 million that has been budgeted for such costs — the city could save about $20 million.
“But for us to do that, the city needs to have a plan, and the plan needs to be intensely monitored,” said Bok, who was among the councilors who said city officials need to examine the structure of how police overtime is assigned.
Councilor Matt O’Malley said that some of the mechanisms that contributed to increases in police OT were dictated by state law, city policy, or collective bargaining agreements. He spoke of discussing “removing policies that encourage the use of overtime as a normal, rather than unusual, practice.”
“We can’t accept the status quo of running over,” Bok said. “Next year’s budget is going to be hard. We’re going to be looking at declining revenues.”
Councilor Michael Flaherty acknowledged that “there are some issues [that] need to be addressed to control overtime costs.” He suggested that each councilor ride along with an officer for a shift and look at documents that reflect 911 calls that the department responds to in order to get a sense of what Boston police deal with on a daily basis. He said he listened to a scanner as Boston police responded to a string of homicides, as well as non-fatal stabbings and shootings, over the holiday weekend.
“It was call, after call, after call, after call,” he said.
Councilors also discussed police union contracts as policy documents at Wednesday’s meeting. Bok said almost every issue of police accountability ties back to the contracts.
“These contracts shape the conditions for the use of deadly force, which makes them public policy issues of the highest order,” she said. “You know, it’s a life and death thing.”
The council has no seat at the bargaining table for such contracts, although it does have the power to reject funding such pacts. The contracts for Boston’s four main police unions officially expired on June 30.
Campbell said that many police reforms must be initiated through collective bargaining, including changes pertaining to disciplinary practices, overtime minimums, and training regiments.
She wanted to know whether Walsh is committed to eliminating a four-hour minimum for BPD overtime shifts, more robust antiracist training, and an updated use-of-force policy, and if Walsh would push for such proposals during the union negotiations. She said that if such changes were not made, she could not see herself supporting the contracts.
“This is a unique time that we’re in, where residents are standing with us in demanding that we be more transparent with respect to what’s happening at the bargaining table,” she said.
In a Wednesday statement, Walsh said it is his top focus "to make sure we are keeping our residents safe, including our police officers, and we will work to come to an agreement with the unions on any adjustments that need to be made for the safety of our communities."
“We all agree we need to create systematic, lasting change in our city to champion racial equity,” said Walsh. “That is why the City is implementing racial equity training for every employee, including our police officers. And that is why we will be pushing for real reforms including how and when overtime is earned in our contract negotiations with the Boston Police unions, as we have in the past.”
Councilor Lydia Edwards said authorities should be looking at how officers are disciplined and whether BPD incentivizes officers to intervene in situations where a superior is doing something wrong or dangerous. She indicated that if solutions are not contained in the union contracts, she would encourage her colleagues to vote against the collective bargaining agreements.
She said Boston police unions are different from other organized labor groups given that their members are armed, can use deadly force, and have been used “to counter and also suppress other workers organizing.”
“This union, is not only different, but it’s extremely powerful,” she said.
On Wednesday, both measures were referred to the council’s ways and means committee.